Achilles by

8 May 2008

Setting: ,

Achilles by Elizabeth Cook

ISBN: 0413771393Read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge
See also: LibraryThing ; John Sledge ; Brief author bio

Two rivers. Flowing in contrary directions.
Two layers of water, each moving steadily, separate and self-possessed.

When I was thinking of books to read for the myth section of Carl’s challenge I did consider the Iliad, and the Odyssey too, so when I was wandering around the library and stumbled across this book it seemed perfect. And I’m so glad I picked it up; it makes for a really good read.

This is a very poetic novel. And more than a tad post-modern. But don’t be put off, it is beautifully told. Or maybe told is the wrong word. Cook doesn’t really attempt to tell any story, rather she gives us flashes of scenes, hints at this and that, spartan[1] depictions of events and people. It works so well.

Cook’s Achilles is not the childish petulant hero of Homer’s myth, neither is he the too-old Brad Pitt pretending perfection, instead he is a man at war with himself. Or maybe more accurately he has two halves of himself at war with each other. Mortal vs divine. Only he isn’t really divine, he is mortal, he will die, so does that mean that that aspect of him has won?

It’s strange how Cook manages to bring so much to life in such a slight book. My copy is just over 100 pages. Not a lot when dealing with the Trojan war, Achilles, and a chapter on Keats. But she really does pack a lot in there. From Achilles’ motivations to his men’s actions, to Helen’s unhappiness at her “gift” of beauty.

The book is told in the present tense. That can be an annoying device, but, yet again, I have to say that it really works, it creates creates the immediacy that some of the scenes require. Everything is happening now, as you read the book.

He[Achilles] looks Hector over, scanning the armour that fits him so well, searching for a place to insert his blade. Like a lover taking in every inch of his beloved as they lie in the hot sun. All the time he could want, no rush, no fear of missing.
There is one point where the armour does not close over Hector. The tender diamond hollow between the clavicles is naked. Achilles fits his sword’s tip here.
Slowly, evenly, the pressure mounting, he pushes.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I really enjoyed this book. The writing is beautiful, and the cover isn’t unpretty either :)

He stands apart with Patroclus, his beloved through all eternity, and Patroclus – who loves Achilles but not so much as he is loved – waits for Achilles to move. His deference to Achilles is different from that of the others. They honour and respect him, keep a wise distance, because Achilles was better than all the rest. Better at being human. Fighting, singing, speaking, raging (oh, he is good at that still). Killing. But Patroclus alone is humbled by Achilles’ love. Only a fool thinks that to be more loved than loving gives power. Only a fool vaunts it and displays his own littleness by bragging to his friends and making capricious demands of his lover. Patroclus isn’t a fool. He knows that he is less than Achilles even in this. Humbled by the immensity of Achilles’ love he loves him back with all his large, though lesser, heart.

The only problem is the final few pages. I really didn’t get them, jumping forward to the life of Keats and offering the reader a selection of scenes from his life, some of his poetry, and bits of Shakespeare. I suppose it is all about how heroes echo through eternity, as a certain gladiator once said, but I’m not sure it works. Maybe if I knew more about Keats I’d have more of a clue. Still, the rest of the book more than makes up for those few pages.


  1. see what I did there?

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Aarti says:

    I have never heard of this book- thanks for reviewing it! I feel there are a lot of new Greek/Roman mythology offerings out lately. I really enjoyed The Penelopiad when it came out. And have you heard about the novel Lavinia? It's supposed to be very good. I hope to pick that one up soon.

  2. Fence says:

    The Penelopiad, that's the one by Atwood isn't it? I keep meaning to pick it up and take a look, she can be a great writer sometimes. Other times her books leave me a bit cold though.